Why Watching Porn Definitely Isn’t Cheating

There’s no harm in looking.

When I was in college, I walked in on my boyfriend watching an X-rated video on his VCR (internet porn was not yet as ubiquitous as it is today).

Though the video quality was poor, it was hard to miss – or forget – the image of a bikini clad woman giving a very vocal blow job to her disproportionately endowed lover (if penis size were an olympic sport, he would have taken out gold, silver and bronze). Horrified, I told him if I ever caught him watching another woman performing fellatio in his bedroom again, it’d be quits for our relationship.

But my standpoint today is decidedly different.

In fact, if anyone watches more porn in my current relationship, it’s me. It’s no secret I’m an advocate of adult viewing, I’ve written about my on-again-off-again affair with it in the past. Porn has not only failed to cause cracks in my relationship, it’s brought us closer. Better than any sex ed class or Cosmo column, my X-rated viewing has taught me what I do – and definitely don’t – like in bed, and introduced me to some of my best moves (let’s just say it hasn’t prompted any complaints).

However, social perceptions of the role of pornography in a relationship tend to err more along the “Will somebody please think of the children?!” viewpoint; namely, the notion that if you’re coupled off, you shouldn’t be surfing Porn Hub.

In a 2013 survey of over 70,000 people by MSNBC, six per cent of men and 16 per cent of women said adult-rated viewing could be constituted as cheating. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers also suggested in a 2003 report that porn viewing habits play a significant role in more than half of divorce cases, and if you’re fond of following the ugly publicity trail of the notorious celeb divorce case, you’ve no doubt noticed the power smut has to throw a person’s commitment into question.

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The 2005 split of Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen saw Richards’s lawyers accuse Sheen of addictively logging on to “barely legal” porn sites, while the very public 2007 divorce battle of Ellen’s ex Anne Heche and Coley Laffoon saw Laffoon accused of watching porn when he was supposed to be taking care of their son. The premise in both cases was that by forming a porn viewing habit, Sheen and Laffoon had painted themselves as disloyal partners.

It’s a stark contradiction to the way we’re conditioned to regard young men who watch X-rated films growing up; as boys simply being, well, boys. The very notion that porn watching is an inherent part of being male is so ingrained within our culture it’s almost impossible to watch a comedic flick without at least one slapstick encounter with a tube sock and a website eliciting sounds of women melodramatically moaning.

In the 1989 comedy hit Parenthood, it’s the discovery of his girlfriend’s little brother’s porn stash that allows Keanu Reeves’s character, Tod, to bond with the angst-ridden teen, Gary, who he reassures by saying, “That’s just what little dudes do. We’ve all done it.”

Indeed it would appear our society is fraught with double standards when it comes to the issue of pornography. While ads blatantly depicting lingerie-clad women in sexual positions are an accepted part of our mainstream media, watching videos bringing those very scenarios to life within the realms of a relationship provokes mixed reactions.

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Hiring a stripper is practically a prerequisite for pre-wedding celebrations, but surfing for videos of women self-gratifying is generally considered unacceptable once the bouquet is tossed. We regard young men who participate in online adult viewing as harmlessly exploring their manhood, and sexual deviants when those same men take their porn collections into the bedroom of their marriages.

So which is it?

While there’s been plenty of discussion over the various evils of porn viewing in a relationship, little has been substantiated.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that pornography does anything negative,” says University of Hawaii’s Pacific Center for Sex and Society director, Milton Diamond.

“It’s a moral issue, not a factual issue.”

And no aspect of morality is questioned more so than our attitudes toward women when it comes to porn consumption. Anti-porn activists have long touted that coupled-up men who watch X-rated content erode their relationships with the inevitable degeneration of respect toward women that comes with watching smut. However, in a 2007 Queensland University of Technology study of over a thousand male porn watchers, it was found there was no discernible link between the amount of pornography consumed and negative attitudes toward women. In fact, the respondents who were found to be the most sexist were generally older men who lived in rural areas and had lower levels of formal education. Another study of 688 Danish adults in 2008 concluded there was a positive correlation between porn viewing and increased sexual satisfaction within a relationship.

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The only instance porn has been found to be damaging to a couple’s bond is when both parties aren’t on the same page, as highlighted by a 2014 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, which found that couples who were honest with each other about their porn use tended to have higher levels of relationship satisfaction, while those that attempted to deceive their significant other about their viewing habits reported much lower levels.

Most of our ideas around the link between porn and fidelity tend to be skewed by social conditioning, rather than quantitative reasoning. To say viewing smut will fuel unrealistic sexual expectations in your relationship is to say watching The Notebook will make you expect your husband to turn into Ryan Gosling (just getting my husband to sit through that movie was mission enough).

The notion that porn watching should be equated with cheating isn’t only fundamentally flawed, it’s culturally damaging. And it’s impossible to climb upon an ivory tower in this discussion, because if you’re a living, breathing adult, chances are you’ve watched porn at some point, if only to understand why some 68 million people Google it every day.

Logging on to Porn Hub isn’t going to destroy fidelity in our relationships any more than it will turn men into misogynists and rapists. And just as I discovered some months after my awkward encounter with my boyfriend’s VCR player, demonizing it only serves to fuel our curiosity around using it. So if you want to make porn off limits in your relationship, do so at your own risk. Because once something becomes a red button, it’s usually the first one we want to push.

Comment: Do you think we need to loosen up our attitude to porn in relationships?